School officials question scholarship program
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – More than 7,300 Florida public school students who are subject to bullying or violence are expected to participate in the first year of the new “Hope Scholarship” program, which will provide state funding to send students to private schools.
But that estimate from state analysts may have to be adjusted based on questions raised Wednesday by school officials from around the state in reaction to a proposed rule from the Department of Education aimed at implementing the voucher-like scholarship program, passed by the Legislature earlier this year.
School officials used the public workshop to try to clarify exactly how the scholarship program would work in their districts when it begins in the new academic year.
Bill Emerson, an assistant superintendent in Santa Rosa County, questioned whether the scholarship would be triggered if an incident of bullying or violence was reported by a student but not verified.
“Because there are many times we get an allegation like this and we find out it’s not true. There’s nothing to it,” Emerson said.
Under the law, once an incident is reported to a school principal, the district must notify the student’s parents within 15 days or upon the completion of the investigation, whichever occurs first, about the scholarship opportunity.
When asked whether the new rule could provide a tighter standard, Adam Miller, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, said the department is strictly guided by the new law.
“We are bound by what is in the statute. We can’t through a rule amend the provisions of the law. We can only implement the law as written,” Miller said. “So this rule really kind of fills in the blanks for process and procedure and some of the regulations in terms of private school participation.”
The law identifies more than a dozen incidents --- including bullying, harassment, assault, robbery and intimidation --- which would make students eligible for the Hope scholarships.
Emerson said there are “unfortunate” cases at some Santa Rosa schools where students are caught having consensual sex, which qualifies as a “sexual offense,” another of the incidents cited in the new scholarship program.
He said those students usually would be disciplined and sent to an “alternative” school. But he said that could change under the new law.
“The way we read the law, both students would then be offered the Hope scholarship” if they reported the incident, Emerson said.
Other school officials raised the issue of students qualifying for the scholarships if they were involved in “mutual” fighting, a common occurrence at public schools. In 2016-17, schools reported 19,742 fights out of the 45,313 “safety” incidents on their campuses.
But while the workshop questions implied the Hope scholarships potentially could be broadly used, one limitation will be the amount of money available for the program, which is designed on a “first come, first served” basis.
Early last month, analysts from the Legislature, Governor’s Office, education department and the Office of Economic and Demographic Research projected that slightly more than 11 percent of Floridians who buy new or used vehicles each year will volunteer to shift up to $105 from the sales tax they would normally pay on the transactions to the Hope scholarship program. It will generate about $41 million each year when fully implemented.
The scholarships, which are based on the statewide per-student funding level, would be worth more than $7,112 for high school students in 2019-20, $6,816 for middle school students and $6,519 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
In addition to using the state-funded scholarships to attend a private school, the Hope program would also let students attend another public school, providing up to $750 in transportation costs.
During Wednesday’s workshop, Florida School Boards Association lobbyist Ruth Melton asked whether the state or Step Up For Students, the non-profit group that will handle the Hope scholarships, will use a waiting list for students who qualify for program but do not get scholarships because of the lack of funding.
Miller said neither the proposed rule, which will be considered by the state Board of Education next month, nor the law addressed the issue of a waiting list.
Last week, state analysts assessed the impact of the Hope scholarships on the annual enrollment in Florida’s public school system.
The May 30 analysis projected an estimated 7,302 Hope scholarship students in 2018-19, adjusted to 6,858 in 2019-20.
News Service of Florida